Is this threequel better than the first two films?
- Critic's Rating A+
- Readers' Rating n/a
PARK CITY - I called my wife tonight when I got out of the theater where I saw "Before Midnight," the new film by Richard Linklater that follows up his first two movies about Jesse and Celine, because that seemed like the most urgent thing in the world at that particular moment.
I was 25 years old when "Before Sunrise" came out. I was living with a woman, on my way to married, working as a screenwriter and making a living with my writing for the first time ever, and when I saw the film, it hit me dead center. I was blown away by the gentle, clever, romantic voice of the movie. Ethan Hawke is practically the default avatar for white dudes my age, an '80s survivor that has grown up interesting and seemingly intact, and Julie Delpy… well, come on. I grew up in love with European cinema. I certainly had my "OMG French girls" phase, and Delpy looks like the walking embodiment of it.
What really seemed dazzling to me was the way the script by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan did one of the things I find most difficult in writing: they carefully crafted something that felt utterly spontaneous. At the end of that film, I don't remember thinking, "Okay, now I want a sequel." I just loved it as a standalone thing, and it went into my regular rotation of films I adored.
A very good cast is game for a dirty silly gem
- Critic's Rating B+
- Readers' Rating n/a
PARK CITY - Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant addressed the fact that they seem to have two very distinct careers that they are enjoying simultaneously when they stood in front of the packed Library on Sunday night a few minutes before midnight to introduce their directorial debut, "Hell Baby."
Lennon and Garant are incredibly talented, incredibly funny guys. The work they do that is pure comedy, like "Reno 911" or "The State," tends to be very funny, and Lennon is one of those comedy character actors who works pretty much non-stop, and he's able to weave minor miracles out of weak material at times. I say all this so that when I say that the films that have most defined them and their success are largely terrible, you'll understand that it's not an all-or-nothing proposition with me. I really don't like the "Night At The Museum" films or "The Pacifier" or "Herbie Fully Loaded," but that's pretty unimportant. Those are big broad mainstream movies, and writing two "Night At The Museum" films is what gives Lennon and Garant the freedom to do things that they want to do. So be it. Especially if the end result is something as non-stop filthy, crass, and funny as "Hell Baby."
The director of 'Primer' has returned to the fest with a worthy follow-up
PARK CITY - Seeing the insane line outside the Eccles Theater today, I couldn't help but wonder how many of those people knew what sort of movie they were getting into when they sat down for Shane Carruth's "Upstream Color" this morning. Based on the conversations I overheard on the bus afterwards, I'd wager the film caught a lot of those people by surprise, and little wonder. Dense, beautiful, hypnotic, and almost willfully opaque, "Upstream Color" is a great movie, but it is not an inviting one. Carruth expects you to do a certain amount of the work for yourself, and for some viewers, there is no more frustrating kind of film than that.
Personally, I see plenty of movies every year where every little detail is spelled out in such an obvious manner that I don't mind when I see someone change it up. Carruth's movie starts strange, gets very dark, then takes a left-turn into one of the most damaged movie romances I can remember before finally lifting off into about a half-hour long finale with no dialogue whatsoever. It is completely different in aesthetics and narrative approach than Carruth's previous film, "Primer," but like that film, it seems to have no real interest in conventional narrative.
A chat with the cast of Lynn Shelton's new film is engaging and sharp
PARK CITY - It's hard enough being expected to walk out of a movie, sit down, immediately process and write and publish, and then repeat that process several times a day, but when you throw in the added element of interviews, many of which are done right after you see a film, things get interesting.
In the case of "Touchy Feely," I was still digesting the movie when I walked over to the Stella Artois Studio (everything at Sundance is sponsored and branded out the wazoo) to chat with the people behind the movie. There were seven of them total, and so we broke things up into two groups. First up, I've got my conversation with the cast.
Rosemarie DeWitt was here last year for "Your Sister's Sister," and we spoke about that film at that point. I think she's really taken to the style of filmmaking that Shelton practices, and in this film, she's as appealing as she's ever been. Josh Pais is one of those guys you've seen in a number of things, and it's about time we all learn his name because he is consistently good in everything he does. The same could easily be said of Allison Janney, and when you throw Ron Livingston into that mix, that's a group of actors who are very easy to talk to because they all obviously brought their A-game to this film.
Mia Wasikowska is positively mesmerizing in the lead role
PARK CITY - Chan-wook Park has built a reputation for himself as a very smart and very perverse filmmaker, and it is safe to say his reputation will be intact once audiences get a look at "Stoker," a character-driven thriller that made its world premiere tonight at the Sundance Film Festival.
Written by Wentworth Miller, "Stoker" tells the story of India (Mia Waskikowska), an unusual young woman who has a very close relationship to her father (Dermot Mulroney) until the day he dies, which also happens to be her 18th birthday. Shattered, she goes numb, especially since this means she's going to have to deal now with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), who she seems to despise. India is a withdrawn, sullen girl, and she feels alone in the world, which is one of the reasons she is so confused when her Uncle Charlie shows up to pay his respects. Played by Matthew Goode, Uncle Charlie has a surface-level charm that's hard to deny, but it's obvious from the moment he arrives that something is wrong with Uncle Charlie and his story.
The last thing India expects, though, is that there is also something wrong with her.
Even more uncommon? Anthology films with no weak links
PARK CITY - Last year, the anthology horror film "V/H/S" made its premiere as part of the midnight selections, and I was there for the first screening. I really liked "V/H/S," and I think the format for the film is the greatest part of it. It is an invitation to filmmakers, basically. A "What If?" game that any horror artist would be happy to play. I said in my review of the first film that the last segment was the one that impressed me most. "The final segment by Radio Silence feels like the brakes are off and you're flying off the mountain into the void." Well, this entire film feels like it starts at that place and then raises the stakes. The first film told the story of some rotten deaths of some people in the wrong place at the wrong time. The second film feels more like a document proving that the end of the world is underway.
Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard have spent the last few years carving a space out for themselves to play, and their fingerprints are all over this second film. The wrap-around segment is written and directed by Simon, and there is a segment written by him and directed by Adam who also stars in in. Simon appears onscreen in his own wrap-around segment. Naked. So you have that to look forward to, America. Wingard's story mines a potent notion about our increasing relationship to technology. I have joked that my kids are both cyborgs, but I'm not really kidding. They think of technology less as individual objects and more as the way the world works. Wingard is given an experimental replacement eye that also holds a recording device, and in accepting his new extension, he also has to accept access to a whole new visual realm. Wingard's house becomes a trap, and the rhythm of the piece is aggressive, new scares piled one after another.
Rosemarie DeWitt, Ron Livingston, Allison Janney, and Ellen Page head a great group of actors
PARK CITY - When I saw "Humpday" at Sundance, I thought it was a smart and funny little movie, and I ended up reviewing it when the film finally opened in limited release. "Your Sister's Sister" was here last year, and I was really smitten with that one. It felt like there was an exponential jump from film to film by Lynn Shelton as a storyteller, and I wasn't surprised to hear that she had a new film here this year. Sundance obviously likes her work, and why not? When her films are at their best, they represent the exact sort of adult emotional honesty that I find most appealing in a modern filmmaker.
When Judd Apatow talks about letting his cast improvise, people immediately imagine comic actors lobbing one-liners at each other in an effort to steal each scene. In Shelton's films, the improvisation is more about grounding the needs of the story in language that is natural and unforced. Shelton's work is often funny, and I think she falls in love with her characters and loves to indulge them in the choices she makes about which take to use of certain scenes. But she is also capable of crafting an emotional moment that carries a startling amount of heft, and "Touchy Feely" seems more concerned with exploring characters than generating laughs. That's a good thing and there are plenty of moments in "Touchy Feely" that are simply character observation. There is certainly a plot in the film, but it's delivered in a way that never feels mechanical. Things unfold on their own schedule, and when the film finally reaches a sort of crescendo, it isn't something you see coming.
Remake of a recent Mexican film plays it serious and offers strong work
Nick Damici and Jim Mickle have been working together for several films now, co-writing the films that Mickle directs, and they seem to be honing their aesthetic from film to film. Sometimes you see a filmmaker arrive fully formed and sometimes you see a filmmaker grow from movie to movie. In those cases, sometimes even if you don't love the movies, the growth is what's interesting, and "We Are What We Are" represents the best thing they've done together so far, no doubt about it.
From "Mulberry Street" to "Stake Land" to this latest effort, what's obvious is that they take genre seriously, and they ground the outlandish elements with an emphasis on character that one might argue is a requirement of a low budget, but that these filmmakers embrace as a virtue. They like the slow fuse, and they are happy to save up the most shocking things in their films for a few moments instead of trying to just wear the audience down with non-stop sensation.
I haven't seen the original Mexican film, "Somos Lo Que Hay," which was released in 2010, but as I understand it, the films take the same basic idea and dramatize it in very different ways. The Mexican film was about the father of a family who drops dead, leaving the teenage children of the family to carry on the primary responsibility of their particular family, the capture and preparation of a very particular kind of meat. Jorge Michel Grau's film was set in the city, evidently, and that was a big part of the tension of the film.
One-of-a-kind film screens as part of the Sundance NEXT category
- Critic's Rating B+
- Readers' Rating A+
PARK CITY - Probably a half-hour into "Escape From Tomorrow," I turned to William Goss, another critic who was at the screening with me, and whispered, "How does this exist?"
Perhaps the most unusual thing I've ever seen at a film festival, "Escape From Tomorrow" is a slow descent into madness, told from the perspective of a father who finds out that he has lost his job on the final morning of a family vacation. As he spends the day with his family, trying to make them happy, his grip on reality seems to come gradually unhinged, leading to… well, I'm not sure I could describe what it leads to even if it weren't a spoiler. Shot in black-and-white, the film has a strange disassociated vibe to the storytelling, and writer/director Randy Moore has a very clear authorial voice. It is not an understatement to say that it is one of the most unsettling things I've experienced in a theater in quite a while, and part of that is because, even now, even after seeing the Q&A with Moore, even after talking it over with Goss while we ate dinner, even after going over it in my head, I still don't fully understand what I just saw.
All I know is Walt Disney's lawyers are probably climbing onto helicopters and planning a raid on Park City right now.
An unven feature debut by Shaka King features some strong performances
- Critic's Rating C+
- Readers' Rating A+
PARK CITY - So far, Sundance has managed to get me ruminating on my own personal career of chemical misadventures, purely by coincidence. Last night's film, "Crystal Fairy & The Magic Cactus and 2012," had me thinking about what it is that draws us to the extreme experiences, the personal tests that we sometimes impose on ourselves out of a drive to see if we are strong enough to handle them, and this morning's movie, "Newlyweeds," left me reflecting on the way certain relationships in my own life were defined by what substance I had in common with someone.
Shaka King's debut feature, "Newlyweeds" examines the dynamic between Lyle (Amari Cheatom) and Nina (Trae Harris), a young couple who have a mutual love of smoking marijuana. Lyle works as a repo man for a rent-to-own company, and Nina gives museum tours, and the two of them are full of dreams and seem perfectly matched as the film begins. There are many things to like about the way the film unfolds, and for about an hour of the running time, it seems like it works well. Cheatom and Harris do a nice job of playing the couple, and Tone Trank also displays real charisma as Jackie, who is Lyle's partner at work. For a while, there's an aimless quality to the film that works in its favor. We see how Lyle and Jackie have to find ways to get into the apartments where they're supposed to repossess things, and we see how the weed manages to both bring Lyle and Nina closer together at times while also introducing real problems into their relationship. It's great to have someone to smoke with at the end of a day when you're relaxing, someone who is on the same wavelength as you are, but when that person ends up smoking an entire eighth while you're at work and they're unwilling or unable to replace it, the strain it causes is very particular and not really like a normal relationship issue.